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Frank Foster was playing a street concert from the Jazzmobile in Harlem. He called for a blues in B-flat. A young tenor player began to play "out" from the first chorus, playing sounds that had no relationship to the harmonic progression or rhythmic setting. Foster stopped him. "What are you doing?" "Just playing what I feel. "Well, feel something in B-flat, mother****er"

Author Topic: Train and railroad songs  (Read 7755 times)

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Emma Lee

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Train and railroad songs
« on: February 07, 2005, 07:27:05 PM »
KC King (a.k.a. Mr. Emma Lee) and I have been thinking about railroad and train songs. There are quite a lot of them in country blues, and I find them to be some of the most beautiful, nostalgic, goosebump-inspiring tunes.

Trains were things of grandeur that brought or took away your baby, that took you to or away from home, or that were your only home. Railroads were things you worked on as a laborer or prisoner or at any of various jobs. Some trains or people -- or wrecks -- were the stuff of stories and legends.

In country blues there are some beautifully evocative train-like sounds. Rhythmically there are the rumbly sounds and the clickety and shuffley sounds. Melodically, there are bluesy whistles (a classic train steam whistle plays a diminished chord, and the whole chord bends together) as well as bells and calls and shouts.

Here are some nice train and railroad songs (versions in KC's collection):?

Freight Train (Elizabeth Cotten)
Railroad Bill (Etta Baker)
KC Railroad Blues (Andrew and Jim Baxter)
KC Moan (Memphis Jug Band)
Big Railroad Blues (Cannon's Jug Stompers)
Wreck of the Old 97 (Pink Anderson & Rev. Gary Davis)
Railroadin' Some (Henry Thomas)
How Long (Brownie McGhee)
Southbound Train (Big Bill Broonzy)
Blue Railroad Train (Delmore Brothers)
M&O Blues (Memphis Slim)
Kassie Jones, Pt. 1 (Furry Lewis)

There are also numerous versions of John "Steel Drivin' Man" Henry (who died with a hammer in his hand), as well as songs rejecting the plight of John Henry, for example, Spike Driver Blues (Mississippi John Hurt).

And, going a bit off the reservation, here's some post-war city blues:
Choo Choo Ch'Boogie (Louis Jordan)

But I digress. There must be lots of other country blues train and railroad songs. I would be interested in hearing more of them. Anybody have ones they know or especially like?

Meet you at the station,
Emma Lee (and KC King)
« Last Edit: April 18, 2005, 10:44:26 AM by Johnm »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2005, 01:30:41 AM »
We've been discussing Avalon Blues oin ine of the vocal phrasing threads, Long and Short of It, I think. MJH certainly gets a great train feeling in the signature lick and the various figures he uses. Musta been the longest train ride of his life, from Mississippi to NYC.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

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Offline Norfolk Slim

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2005, 01:45:28 AM »
There's MJH's 'Talkin Casey'.

I was thinking of another song as well- which I have on a CD but no credit for.  The guy (who is a local musician) plays it acapella with harmonica breaks- it starts "Black smoke a rolling and it surely is a train".  I'm betting someone on here can tell me exactly what it is and who wrote it, and probably what year it was first recorded ! ;)

Offline Cambio

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2005, 07:27:36 AM »
I've been stuck playing  Furry's version of Kassie Jones for a few weeks now, I say stuck in the good sense.  Man, what a great song that is!  It's like McAbe's great train/harmonica masterpiece of the day, you can almost hear the train coming around the bend.  A fancy guitar playing friend of mine characterized it as elementary, I in turn characterized him as foolish.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #4 on: February 08, 2005, 07:33:32 AM »
I can relate to how you'd get stuck on Kassie Jones, Todd. It's too fun.

Emma and KC: There's also Sam McGee's great "Railroad Blues."

Also, just a correction to the list: The Wreck of the Old 97 is just Pink Anderson. The Juke currently credits all songs on the album Gospel, Blues and Street Songs as by Pink and RGD but really half the album is Pink and the other half is Gary.
« Last Edit: February 08, 2005, 07:35:37 AM by uncle bud »

Offline Johnm

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #5 on: February 08, 2005, 09:59:14 AM »
Hi Emma Lee,
I've got a few good ones two add, I think:
   * "The New Frisco Train", "The Panama Limited" and "Special Streamline", all by Bukka White
   * "Mean Conductor Blues" by Ed Bell
   * "Rolling Stone, part 1" by Robert Wilkins gets into some train stuff
   * "The Train Done Left Me" by the Carolina Tar Heels
   * "Bringing in the Georgia Mail" by Bill Monroe.  GREAT lyrics and really fun to sing with a group
   * "The Train That Carried My Girl From Town" by Frank Hutchison
   * "Orange Blossom Special" by the Rouse Brothers
   * "Snatch It Back Blues" by Buddy Boy Hawkins
I think that lyric line you quoted, Simon, is from the Monroe Brothers tune "Long Journey Home", the first verse of which begins, "Lost all my money but a 2 dollar bill".
This is a great topic and it could make for a really great workshop because there are so many train songs in both the Country Blues and Old time traditions.  Fun to play and sing.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #6 on: February 08, 2005, 10:23:01 AM »
Depending on how you define railroad blues there's Charley Patton's Pea Vine Blues. I may be remembering wrong but I think there is a chapter or section in Paul Oliver's Blues Fell This Morning devoted to this subject.

Also Henry Thomas's Little Red Caboose. And the title referred to above should be Railroadin' Some, I believe.

Blind Lemon's "Sunshine Special".

King Solomon Hill's transplendent "Gone Dead Train", which is related to Lemon's "Gone Dead On You Blues", as I recall (perhaps incorrectly).

Leadbelly "The Midnight Special".

« Last Edit: February 08, 2005, 10:38:53 AM by uncle bud »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #7 on: February 08, 2005, 11:06:11 AM »
And I just thought of Charlie Jordan's "Big Four", a great song in JohnM's online lessons.
And you're right about a chapter in Blue's Fell This Morning, UB, but it's more fun to see how many we can come up with on our own.
I just thought, there must be several in Leadbelly's catalogue, beyond "Midnight Special".
All for now.
John C.

"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #8 on: February 08, 2005, 11:11:18 AM »
I just thought, there must be several in Leadbelly's catalogue, beyond "Midnight Special".

Yes, Rock Island Line is another. There must be more Leadbelly.

Sam Collins' Yellow Dog Blues is another.
« Last Edit: February 08, 2005, 11:20:52 AM by uncle bud »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #9 on: February 08, 2005, 11:26:37 AM »
I guess we'd include Walter Davis' "M & O Blues" to break our guitar centricity, and there's Willie Brown's "M & O Blues", too. Davis' Come Back Baby has the line "Long train, mean engineer, took my baby, left me standin' here." At least later versions by Lightnin' Hopkins and Van Ronk, etc. do. How 'bout Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain". Of course, McTell's "Broke Down Engine", and also his "Searchin the Desert For the Blues" has the line "Followed my baby from the depot to the train". Emma Lee pretty much stuck with songs that had obvious train references in the title, but if we open it up to train references in the lyrics we could end up with half the pre-war catalogue, eh?
All for now.
John C.
« Last Edit: February 08, 2005, 12:44:11 PM by waxwing »
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

Offline dj

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #10 on: February 08, 2005, 12:01:14 PM »
I'm glad John C. mentioned Walter Davis.  It gives me the courage to mention my all-time favorite train blues, one that features not guitar but a piano accompaniement:  Southern Casey Jones by Jesse James.  I love Furry Lewis's version, but I've always felt that this one was the true classic.

Does John Henry count as a railroad song?     

Offline outfidel

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #11 on: February 08, 2005, 12:20:28 PM »
There are some really good CD collections of early blues/folk train songs -- check out

Train 45: Railroad Songs Of The Early 1900s

Classic Railroad Songs, Vol. 1: Steel Rails

I love these old railroad songs, even if the only trains I see are commuter passenger trains.? ;)
« Last Edit: April 18, 2005, 10:45:58 AM by Johnm »
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Emma Lee

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #12 on: February 08, 2005, 12:55:42 PM »
Wow-wow-waaaaaaow! Hey, great stuff! And keep 'em rolling. ;D? I'll have to request 'em all on the Juke.

One thing I love is how many ways there are to make train sounds. Guitar can get a really nice ringing, rhythmic sound going (like Henry Thomas, who also adds those really nice quills sounds as the whistles), and also a nice thum-thum-thum sound in the bass (Furry Lewis). Piano is a great railroad instrument too. The jug bands get a whole extra dimension with jug as the boiler, harmonica as an ideal train whistle sound, plus layers of kazoo, guitar, and singers -- the Memphis Jugs' KC Moan is just beautiful.

I say include all those nice John Henry blues. Here some versions from the home juke (there are tons more I'm sure): Henry Thomas, Cephas & Wiggins, James Roberts, Arthur McClain, Joe Thompson, Alec Askew (some of these are from compilations like Black Banjo Songsters on Smithsonian Folkways)...
« Last Edit: April 18, 2005, 10:46:45 AM by Johnm »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #13 on: February 08, 2005, 01:03:11 PM »
Scrapper Blackwell's "Down South Blues" is another one. Emma Lee, do you want to do a running compilation of what we've got so far?
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

Offline outfidel

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Re: Train and railroad songs
« Reply #14 on: February 08, 2005, 01:25:40 PM »
Another, parallel genre to train songs are mining songs: Dark as a Dungeon, Dream of the Miner's Child, Disaster at the Mannington Mine, etc. Like train songs, usually something awful happens, people die, women & children weep, etc. -- great stuff.

That's why I loved the song in A Mighty Wind called "Blood on the Coal" -- it tells the story of a train crashing into a coal mine.

 :)
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